Caring Makes Us Human

Troy Chapman - Kincheloe, Michigan
As heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition, September 28, 2008
Troy Chapman

When a stray cat came into the yard at a Michigan prison, Troy Chapman and his fellow inmates discovered they enjoyed caring for the cat. The experience helped Chapman realize how much he missed kindness—receiving it as well as giving it.

Age Group: 30 - 50

When the scruffy orange cat showed up in the prison yard, I was one of the first to go out there and pet it. I hadn’t touched a cat or a dog in over twenty years. I spent at least twenty minutes crouched down by the Dumpster behind the kitchen as the cat rolled around and luxuriated beneath my attention. What he was expressing outwardly, I was feeling inwardly.

It was an amazing bit of grace to feel him under my hand and know that I was enriching the life of another creature with something as simple as my care. I believe that caring for something or someone in need is what makes us human.

Over the next few days I watched other prisoners responding to the cat. Every yard period, a group of prisoners gathered there. They stood around talking and taking turns petting the cat. These were guys you wouldn’t usually find talking to each other. Several times I saw an officer in the group—not chasing people away, but just watching and seeming to enjoy it along with the prisoners.

Bowls of milk and water appeared, along with bread, wisely placed under the edge of the Dumpster to keep the seagulls from getting it. The cat was obviously a stray and in pretty bad shape. One prisoner brought out his small, blunt-tipped scissors and trimmed burrs and matted fur from its coat.

People said, “That cat came to the right place. He’s getting treated like a king.” This was true. But as I watched, I was also thinking about what the cat was doing for us.

There’s a lot of talk about what’s wrong with prisons in America. We need more programs; we need more psychologists or treatment of various kinds. Some even talk about making prisons more kind, but I think what we really need is a chance to practice kindness ourselves. Not receive it, but give it.

After more than two decades here, I know that kindness is not a value that’s encouraged. It’s often seen as a weakness. Instead, the culture encourages keeping your head down, minding your own business, and never letting yourself be vulnerable.

For a few days a raggedy cat disrupted this code of prison culture. They’ve taken him away now, hopefully to a decent home—but it did my heart good to see the effect he had on me and the men here. He didn’t have a PhD, he wasn’t a criminologist or a psychologist, but by simply saying, “I need some help here,” he did something important for us. He needed us—and we need to be needed. I believe we all do.

Troy Chapman is a writer, artist, and musician, incarcerated at Kinross Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan. He has developed a system of wholeness ethics into a weekly program for fellow inmates at Kinross, and he is the author of Stepping Up: Wholeness Ethics for Prisoners (And Those Who Care About Them).

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.